Dublin 1913 and 2013
 

Dublin 1913 and 2013

Padraig Yeates is a journalist and historian. Here he explores the comparisons, similarities and differences between Dublin 1913 and 2013. His book Lockout: Dublin 1913 is the definitive account of the conflict and has been republished by Gill & Macmillan. He is the co-ordinator of the SIPTU 1913 Lockout Committee.

The current Abbey Theatre is rapidly approaching its 50th birthday but its associations with the site go back to the Mechanics building that was transformed into Ireland’s national theatre in 1904. That building perished in the fire of 1951, when festering tenements still stood a stone’s throw away. Now they too are gone but their cramped, jerry-built successors may well be destined to become the slums of the future.

At the other end of Old Abbey Street, running behind the theatre as far as Beresford Place is Liberty Hall. The cottages that housed local people in 1913, including the redoubtable Rosie Hackett, are long gone, replaced by utility access ways for modern office blocks, but it remains a short cut to O’Connell Street and occasional refuge for those with nowhere to go. Towering over it is the ugly glass and concrete box of Liberty Hall, very different from the nondescript Northumberland Hotel acquired by Jim Larkin as a headquarters for his new Irish Transport and General Workers Union to which the current owner, SIPTU, can trace its roots. Larkin was a frequent visitor to the Abbey Theatre just as some of its denizens – Helena Molony, Andrew P Wilson and Sean O’Casey were well known in Liberty Hall.

The survival of the Abbey Theatre and SIPTU are tributes to the dedication of several generations who strove to build these two great institutions. The future of SIPTU, which played a major role in the creation and development of the modern Irish state, is less certain than the Abbey Theatre’s. There is a general consensus that a national theatre is a desirable thing in itself, not so trade unions.

The right of workers to collective bargaining and union recognition is still contested a century after the Lockout when Dublin’s employers attempted to smash the ITGWU and send the city’s unskilled and semi-skilled workers scurrying back into the slums to await their summons. The wealthy of the city were pitched against men and women whose only capital was their own bodies. They could expect to see that capital waste away by 50 if disease, drink or industrial accidents had not claimed them first. For many the workhouse was their final destination. Today the private nursing home has become the upmarket alternative in the absence of the sort of universal health care advocated by Larkin and his fellow socialist dreamers.

The Lockout battle was played out literally on the Abbey Theatre’s doorstep, when ‘the scum of the slums’, to quote Archbishop Walsh’s secretary Fr Michael Curran, battled the police in surrounding streets and alleyways. The Archbishop proved more charitable than his secretary or indeed many of his priests, who included slum landlords and shareholders in the enterprises of William Martin Murphy, the ‘Financial Octopus’ castigated in Larkin’s Irish Worker for sucking the wealth of Dublin into his tentacles.

The Catholic Church was the coming power in 1913. Today it is a shadow of its former self. Murphy’s successors have no more need of clerical benedictions than they require that other repository of social solidarity values, the trade union movement.

People have far more rights today, as workers, as patients, as consumers, as customers, as clients, as citizens or any other subdivision of a human being the state or the market cares to dissect, codify and commodify. But these are individual rights mediated through institutions rather than the moral economy of a society that still breathed in James Plunkett’s day. It has to be said that while the state may legislate for specific rights, it is less effective at vindicating them than the private sector – for those who can afford the latter’s services.

The social tyranny of the collective that ruled the tenements and union halls a century ago has gone; and with it much of the prejudice and intolerance that made mass attendance on Sunday obligatory while a blind eye was turned on domestic violence, drunkenness and child abuse. The social solidarity values at the heart of The Risen People were on the side of the angels, but they have become little more than moral abstractions for contemporary theatre audiences. The people who need these most, the young, the part-time and casual, the female and the migrant elements of the workforce are largely denied access to trade unions by the laws of the land.

Paradoxically it is the better off who are in trade unions that often hold them most in contempt. Having absorbed the values of a consumer society they see unions as a mere subscription based service like house insurance. They have no more respect for, or understanding of its values than many Dubliners making their weekly religious observances in 1913 had of Christianity. In 1913 Larkin’s most formidable weapon was his capacity to instil hope in the future and a belief in the justice of their cause to the slum dwellers of Dublin; complete with a vision of a New Jerusalem, a workers’ commonwealth, on the banks of the Liffey. He believed, as did countless thousands of others, that socialism was not only morally and economically superior to capitalism but that history was on their side and victory was inevitable.

Today we are mired in the more modest aspirations of possessive individualism. We are what we own, and the more we own the better we are. Even those content with this new social contract are unlikely to fight, let alone die for the New Babylon on the Liffey. And, unlike Larkin’s city, there is no room in the New Babylon for those who do not have the wherewithal to buy a place within its walls.

One thing remains unchanged since 1913. We still do not know what the future holds. During the Lockout the First World War was only a matter of months away. Nationalism, socialism, internationalism and religion, the staple ideologies of the times, were about to undergo terrifying mutations that would make the world an even more violent, unstable and dangerous place.

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